To memorialize the passing of George A. Romero (who died last week at the age of 77), I recently rewatched my favorite film of his, the 1978 vampire story Martin. The movie remains an object lesson in how to make the most of a low budget, but more importantly it’s a deeply emotional work, perhaps the most emotional in Romero’s career.
Martin showcases the writer-director’s talent for cultural observation and his ability to elicit memorable performances from relatively unknown actors. It also provides an affecting document of a particular time and place: working-class Pittsburgh during the 1970s recession. Another thing that makes Martin so special is the way the horror elements intertwine with the social portrait—the theme of vampirism serves to bolster the themes of longing and loss. It confirms that Romero was one of the most sympathetic American filmmakers, in addition to being a great horror maestro.
The title character (John Amplas) is a lonely vampire who appears to be about 20 years old. We first meet him on a train, which he’s riding to Pittsburgh to live with his elderly cousin. The first extended sequence shows Martin preying on a young woman who’s riding in one of the sleeper cars, drinking her blood only after a struggle to inject her with a drug that puts her to sleep. Martin feels pity for his victims and wants them to suffer as little pain as possible, yet he’s also a clumsy predator—the struggle goes on for minutes, and his frequent apologizing only makes the attack go more slowly. As he will do throughout the film, Romero establishes sympathy for victim as well as victimizer, complicating one’s reaction to what appears onscreen. Martin is no suave killer—in fact he’s as graceless as his victim. Romero often worked wonders with anonymous-looking performers, using their ordinary features and body language to make their characters relatable. As a result, you can imagine yourself as Martin or as the woman he kills, and the lack of a definitive identification figure adds to the queasiness of a brilliantly staged and edited horror set piece.
When Martin arrives in Pittsburgh, Romero introduces two new major characters: the elderly cousin, Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), and the city itself. The director establishes a palpable sense of place through shots of old homes, junkyards, and run-down factories. This is a town that has seen better days; there’s a melancholy quality to the city portrait. These images also serve to undercut the film’s horror. Martin doesn’t take place in a mythical environment, but rather a recognizably decrepit metropolis that seems to reject mystical notions. Cuda believes in mysticism, however, attempting to keep Martin at bay with crucifixes and cloves of garlic. The young cousin insists that these things have no effect on him (he’s also impervious to sunlight), and this conflict of beliefs belies a larger conflict between old-world and new-world perspectives. Throughout the film, Martin tells Cuda that there’s no magic in the world, yet the old man persists in his beliefs, vowing to cleanse Martin’s soul and then destroy him.
Martin’s denial of magic mirrors the slow death of urban working-class culture that Romero observes. The film shows old traditions of working-class neighborhoods just barely being kept alive. Cuda runs a general store, but all of his customers are elderly; he gives Martin a job making home deliveries, and the customers we see tend to be lonely housewives who are uncertain of how to spend their time. Cuda also houses a twentysomething granddaughter (Christine Forrest, the director’s then-wife), whose boyfriend (Tom Savini, also the film’s make-up artist) bemoans the lack of jobs for young mechanics like himself. Later in Martin, these two characters will leave Pittsburgh to seek better job opportunities elsewhere, and one of the housewives will commit suicide, presumably out of emotional desperation. Where Romero’s Living Dead films imagine societal breakdown on a frighteningly large scale, in Martin that sense of breakdown is intimate and melancholy. It makes the main character’s vampirism seem like a last gasp of activity in a world that denies a future to working-class youths like him.
The murders that occur in Martin, which are shockingly forthright, momentarily distract from the social observations. These sequences also point to Romero’s greatness as a storyteller—he could shift his perspective whenever he wanted from the large-scale to the intimate, making viewers imagine what it was like to live in the characters’ shoes. This talent comes through in the scenes of Dawn of the Dead (1978) that show the main characters barricading the mall where they hide from the zombie invasion, and in the passages of Monkey Shines (1988) that show the hero adjusting to his life as a quadriplegic. There is generally a sense in Romero’s films of how life works on a practical level, and this keeps the works from feeling like straightforward allegories. In Martin this understanding of practical matters comes through in the deliberation with which the main character stalks and attacks his victims. Murder always seems difficult and unnatural.
Yet for all the terror Romero inspires with the film’s murders, the dominant tone of Martin is sad. All of the characters are lonely and isolated, and the city they inhabit offers no opportunities for them to realize themselves. About halfway into the movie, Martin begins calling into a late-night radio talk show to confess to his murders. These scenes are among the bleakest in the film, showing the main character’s longing for human connection and his awkward efforts to achieve it. Romero’s grand theme was the need for camaraderie amid social disorder, and he expresses it most poignantly here. Martin may be a downer, but Romero’s recognition of that fundamental need speaks to an enduring and uplifting sensitivity.